A primer of early artworks in the blockchain space.
Tokenised art has taken the world by storm! (sort of).
Commonly called ‘Crypto-Art’ or ‘Art On The Blockchain’, this niche discipline has seized transaction volume of some of the most voluminous blockchains and arrived on conference panels at some of the most prestigious art events.
Similar in movement to early net art, blockchains and blockchain platforms provide a new variation of current applications and representation of data that art niches can easily pick up on. Add into that the potential financial benefits that blockchain offers and you can see how it has easily captured a quickly growing clique of early adopters and artistic organisers.
This article is a short intro to various early artworks and ideas that have come about in this space. It is by no means definitive or exhaustive. Enjoy.
Proof Of Ownership / Token Controlled Access
By far the most common benefit of blockchains for art is proof of ownership. The question of provenance for digital artworks has always been a quandary and blockchains seem to go some way towards fixing that. In addition to that, it makes sense that the paywall controlled access of gaming could make use of it too.
In most cases the blockchain isn’t an inherent part of the artwork or game itself, but forms part of the initial process and is there to ensure immutability and proof of ownership. Then, by holding a token representative of an art piece, owners can have special access to limited content associated with that art.
Jack and Leigh Ruby’s “… and all the reporters laughed and took pictures” uses a ‘Performance Token’ to grant the audience access to a monologue played on their phone, which they repeat whilst walking amongst others doing the same, there by allowing them to take part in the performance.
In the game Sarutobi Island users can battle monsters that are generated from art pieces owned by the user. The art pieces can be any 3rd party artwork owned at the same address so produces a wide range of results based on the users art tastes.
Many pieces of artwork are more direct representations of blockchain related ephemera. In many cases these are simply re-imaginings of logos or portraits of well known cryptography people. These aren’t intrinsically ‘crypto-art’, but more like ‘art referring to crypto’.
Perhaps something more intrinsically representational would be ‘Dogethereum Bridge’, an art piece commissioned by Truebit and overseen by artist Jessica Angel. The piece is a physical representation of a real, programmed data bridge between two cryptocurrencies, Dogecoin and Ethereum. The work itself is a Klein Bottle sculpture large enough to walk into and the piece aims to be decentralised in some way by being open to artists submitting ideas and work to be included in the experience.
Artist Marguerite DeCourcelle experimented with cryptic puzzles embedded in oil paintings very early on in the life of cryptocurrencies. Representational, in the sense of literally representing obfuscated blockchain data, the most renowned of these is The Legend of Satoshi Nakamoto made in 2015, which contained a hidden private key to a bounty of 5 Bitcoins, at the time worth $1,500. It wasn’t solved until 2018 and the bounty had appreciated in value to $50,000. This maybe one of the best known crypto-art pieces thanks to the bounty and length of time it took to solve.
Distributed / Shared Ownership
The tokenisation of art also lends itself well to shared ownership and often operates in the same way as shares in a company. Issuing tokens representing portions of an artwork, whether an actual physical piece of a project or a stake in the ownership, allows the artist or gallery to sell individual bits.
Again, this is due to the financial advantages of blockchain and allows buyers and sellers more flexibility, even allowing smaller investments in famous works such as the Warhol painting recently sold by The Macaenas Platform.
Certainly this makes more sense when the distribution is inherent to the work itself. In ’89 Seconds Atomised’ Eve Sussman, in conjunction with Snark Art, fractured a previous Sussman video piece into 2,304 separate 20 by 20 pixel squares each one sold to a community of different owners around the world. Each owner is able to exhibit the squares they own, but if they want to exhibit more they must approach the community of owners and get permission. One imagines the work will often be shown with a large number of the ‘atoms’ missing.
It’s also worth noting, as monetisation is such a big feature of crypto-art, that the starting price for each “atom” was $100, thus netting a cool $2,304,000 for a piece of work that already existed and was re-sold in a new, distributed way.
There is also SCARAB. A community project that aggregates any submitted artwork and algorithmically generates a single image made from all the submitted work. For every 1000 submissions the artwork is finalised and then put out for sale or exhibition. The owners of the piece are the submitters who receive a token for each submission, representing a share in the final artwork. There will only ever be 50 artworks made by SCARAB.
Gaming is a big part of the crypto-sphere and a lot of art has spun off from it. Sometimes in the more straightforward sense, such as with early blockchain game Spells of Genesis, or other times looser and more indirect such as Cryptopunks by Larva Labs.
Cryptopunks is a set of generative pixelated avatars each one purchasable and ownable on the Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum has become the go to platform for most of the art projects and galleries due to Cryptopunks early efforts. They paved the way for specific kinds of ownership contracts specifically tailored for collectables and what were later to be known as Non-Fungible Tokens. All the buying and selling happens through the contract and thus the control of money can be tailored to meet the needs of the artist or platform. For instance, it is possible to write in code that sends funds from any resale of an artwork to different places, allowing the gallery to automatically take a cut or the artist to get royalties for ongoing sales of a piece.
Other projects have also captured the hearts of artists. Decentraland is an Ethereum based project offering a decentrally owned virtual world. Parcels of land were auctioned off in a huge virtual reality mega-city now being constructed by the thousands of owners. Some owners have formed themselves into districts and many districts are organised by groups of artists experimenting with various virtual reality ideas, whether it’s architecture or gallery spaces, VR or any other digital discipline. If you have other artworks on Ethereum you will also be able to import them too.
There are other projects doing the same thing as Decentraland too. Cryptovoxels is most notable for attracting arty types, with galleries popping up with digital art, gifs and other data feeds imported onto virtual walls.
This is where it starts to get really interesting. Even smart contracts themselves are being used as a means to produce art. My favourite (and also my all-time favourite Crypto-art piece so far) is Autoglyphs, also by Larva Labs.
Autoglyphs are generaated from a piece of code written into a smart contract. A payment of 0.2 Eth (all profits went to charity, btw) to the contract automatically generates a piece of art using code in the contract itself. The transaction generates some Hex data and that data can be converted into an image like the ones seen above. The generated piece is then owned outright by the original paying address. After 512 pieces were generated the contract shut down and no more could be issued.
There are many interesting things to note here. Once the contract is deployed the designers no longer have any control over it. At this point no art, in the traditional sense, has been made at all, but the creators have already relinquished control. Once a person uses the contract to generate a piece it is automatically owned by them, and the creators have no part in that.
Although the parameters were outlined by them, Larva Labs essentially removed themselves from the creation of the art itself. This is typical of generative art, but they also removed themselves from the selling process that a normal piece of art would follow, ie being chosen for sale and brokered by themselves or an agent/gallery and then passed to the new owner.
Another thing that stands out from other crypto-art is that the art remains in the translation of the hex data, which is stored in the contract itself making it perhaps literally the first ‘art on the blockchain’. And, in fact, the hex data can be translated by anything outside of the contract. On their web page you can see it translated by a CNC plotter to physically draw the same piece of art.
Perhaps one of the most innovative artists in this medium is Rob Myers. He was an early practitioner of crypto and has implemented numerous projects that play with the themes of blockchains.
In ‘Secret Artwork’ he created a cryptographic hash of a digital, visual piece of art. The artwork itself is a secret but the hash can be bought and sold like any cryptoart piece, as a tokenised proof of ownership of the secret artwork. What is subsequently displayed in place of the artwork itself is all the other data that is know about the piece, represented in different ways.
Now if you’ve got this far down this article and are thinking to yourself “There’s not enough butts in crypto-art”, then wait no longer!
Buttchain brings blockchain art to the people by recording the life of a seat. And for each butt that sits down a unique artwork is made in reaction to the butt and printed out for the participant. The individual artwork represents a block and each block contains information about all the blocks in the chain before it. The result is not only the visual block printed out for each user, but a full blockchain of butt transactions that immutably, verifiably records the life of a seat.
There are other elements of data related to tokenisation that can also be messed with. CLAMPY’s issuance is his age. What this means is that when CLAMPY was 1 there was only one available. CLAMPY is issued on a platform where it’s possible to issue more tokens on top of those originally issued so for each year he gets older there is another CLAMPY token issued.
CLAMPY aged 4 can be owned by 4 people. This would be akin to an artist making a print and printing a new one each year, only, with the digital world, he actually ages. The original print no longer exists. What you own when you own a CLAMPY is a continually changing image/artwork.
CLAMPY kind of has his own ongoing story. Various things happen to him as he gets older. At four years old his scorpion tail got cut off so the four CLAMPY owners at the time were air-dropped a tail each as a dividend payment on the original CLAMPY. His tail is actually divisible so you could potentially send half a tail to someone else. His venom is also available as a separate tokenised artwork.
One of the ongoing debates in the cryptosphere is the question of how best to link token with artwork. For many people, treating the token just as a certificate of authentication is enough. Theos Phone takes it one step further.
Created by Theo Goodman, Theos Phone is an experiment in tokenisation of physical art. There’s 3 Theos phones. At the heart of the artwork is a gif animation of some pyramids, but the whole phone is part of the art. The phone essentially acts as a hardware wallet with a representative token stored against a private key in a wallet on each phone. Each phone contains a number of video files of the other two phones playing the gif and videos again of the other two phones. Each phone can be used to verify the existence and immutability of the others. The phone also contains various pictures and audio talking about the phone.
The Theos Phone literally links the token with the artwork because it is part of the artwork. However there is still an element of trust needed in that, if the artist has recorded the private key of the wallet on each phone, then he will be able to take your token and then it’s up to the market to decide if the Theos Phone is worth anything without it’s certification of authenticity.
One artwork that potentially solves this problem to is RAREFEELS by Nola1978. Hailing from the meme art genre (yeah, that’s right) this simple sculpture of Feels Guy, also known as Wojak, belies an innovative breakthrough. Part of the sculpture is it’s brain, a USB chip called an Opendime on which is stored a token that the artwork represents. An Opendime contains a known, public address to a bitcoin wallet, but the private key is hidden until the Opendime seal is destroyed. Load a token to the bitcoin address and it can’t be removed until the Opendime seal is destroyed. In order to destroy the Opendime you have to destroy the sculpture. Is this the best way to immutably tokenise a physical artwork? Who knows?!
Blockchain also offers new forms of financial incentives to artists and platforms. There’s the obvious sense of simple, worldwide market creation, where buys and sells can be stacked on an order book and traded like any other commodity, but there’s also great potential for DAOs, Decentralised Autonomous Organisations, and curation markets, within the art world.
Perhaps one of the most directly artistic ideas harnessing the financial aspect of blockchain is Plantoid, a mechanical object that accepts cryptocurrency donations. Once a certain threshold is reached the Plantoid announces that it is ready to ‘reproduce’ by flashing and making sounds. Artists are then invited to submit proposals for producing a new Plantoid, or maybe augmenting the existing one. The community of contributors get to vote on the proposals (via a blockchain of course) and, once chosen, the funds are released to the winning artist. Artists and contributors get rights to dividends from the contributions too.
Essentially the creators of the Plantoid project see the Plantoid as an organic artwork that owns itself and uses humans to reproduce.
What about the other end of the financial spectrum? Artist Cryptograffiti made a tiny portrait of a swan from cut ups of a $1 bill. He then auctioned it with the winner being the one offering the lowest amount. Thanks to recent Bitcoin innovations in microtransactions it sold for $0.000000037, the cheapest artwork ever successfully auctioned. Great!
Well that’s about it for this one. If I’ve missed something important or one of your favs then let me know and I’ll add it.